If sacrificing my interests for another’s sake makes me feel good about myself, is my so-called “act of kindness” selfish at its core?

Most of us don’t know how to answer. Does tithing just make me feel good inside? Do heroes just die just for their own glory? Since we are sometimes blind to the true reasons behind our actions, how can we ever be sure our own motivations aren’t somewhat selfish?

We’re not alone in our altruistic skepticism. According to Judith Lichtenberg in The New York Times,”[T]he view that people never intentionally act to benefit others except to obtain some good for themselves still possesses a powerful lure over our thinking.”

The idea that humans are always motivated by selfishness is called “psychological egoism.” Psychological egoists believe that even if an action seems altruistic, it’s ultimately done for direct or indirect personal gain. The possibility of true self-sacrifice without receiving anything in return is completely ruled out.

Though they may not use the term, many people believe in psychological egoism for two reasons:

  • As economists claim, every rational being behaves in his or her own self-interest.
  • As Christianity teaches, humans are fallen and prone to selfishness.

However, psychological egoism challenges our Christian call to be self-sacrificing like Christ.

Self-interest and Selfishness

Before exploring how psychological egoism and self-sacrifice are at odds, we need to set one thing straight: there is a huge difference between self-interest and selfishness.

The distinction between self-interest and selfishness seems to be so blurred in public discourse that self-interest nearly means selfishness. But this is far from the true definition of self-interest.

Selfishness is a sin, but self-interest is necessary to live out the Christian life. While the Bible clearly condemns selfishness, self-interest is a good thing—it enables us to become well-functioning, contributing members of God’s community. Self-interest motivates us to get up and go to work in the morning, to make friends, to care for our children, to drive carefully to work, and to go to church. It is even in our self-interest to be altruistic. Self-interest is not mutually exclusive from altruism in the Bible.

But is altruism also selfish if you like the way it makes you feel? No. Feeling good after an act of charity or self-sacrifice is not selfish. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 9:7, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

God loves a cheerful giver. That means God wants us to give freely and enjoy the act of giving. Rather than attributing the benefit of cheer we feel after giving to our selfishness, we should accept this joy as a blessing from God. After all, joy is a fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22). Why would God want us to feel bad for doing something good?

God’s Pleasure—and Ours

This brings us to a deeper and more theological question: Is it sinful for a Christian to seek joy and happiness in this life? Aren’t we supposed to seek God, not our pleasure?

To answer questions about our own pleasure, we need to understand a crucial truth about hedonism, or pleasure-seeking. In 1986, John Piper introduced the term “Christian hedonism” in his book Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Although the term “Christian hedonism” sounds like an oxymoron, it is not a contradiction at all. We are Christian hedonists because we believe the song of Psalm 16:11: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness and joy, in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

According to Piper, Christian hedonism is desiring the vast, ocean-deep pleasures of God more than the mud-puddle pleasures of wealth, power, or lust. Unfortunately, too many Christians have bought into the lie that God doesn’t want us to be happy. Piper dispels this myth in his essay “What Is Christian Hedonism?

We value most what we delight in most. Pleasure is a gauge that measures how valuable someone or something is to us. Pleasure is the measure of our treasure.

[. . .]

If a friend says to you, “I really enjoy being with you,” you wouldn’t accuse him of being self-centered. Why? Because your friend’s delight in you is the evidence that you have great value in his heart. In fact, you’d be dishonored if he didn’t experience any pleasure in your friendship. The same is true of God.

Even Christ, who offered the ultimate sacrifice in the history of the world, died for joy. Hebrews 12:2 tells us, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross.” Knowing this truth should make our own giving and sacrifice all the more joyful.